Americans are losing faith in one another. Our nation’s children feel they are growing up in bubbles, isolated from people unlike themselves, while our nation’s adults listen only to the like-minded.
A domestic exchange program that will allow American high school students to study abroad... in the United States.
To facilitate interactions between Americans from different backgrounds in the interest of forming a more perfect union.
The American Exchange Project is starting a program to facilitate empathy-building interactions between high school students from different backgrounds within the United States. The nonprofit runs two core programs. The first provides students the opportunity to interact online via Google Hangouts with other students from around the nation in a series of conversations moderated by members of the organization. The second program funds students to live for a summer in an American community at a geographic, economic and political distance from their own—in short, through AEP, high schoolers will study abroad in their own country. The aim: to build enduring respect and understanding across economic, political, and geographic divides. In turn, this will help both adults and students realize more unites us than divides us.
In the summer of 2016, David McCullough III, then a rising senior at Yale, traveled from his family home in a suburb of Boston to study the impact of poverty on education in three communities: Cotulla, Texas, Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and the Slavic Village neighborhood of Cleveland. His aim was to meet and learn from the people who dealt with the issue every day. He spent two months on the road, driving 7180 miles, speaking to hundreds of people, from students, to parents, to ranchers, to pilots, to politicians, to barbers, to clergy, to police, to medicine men, to the homeless, to businesspeople, to teachers, and many more. He discovered the immense disparities in American public education, and the stark inequities between communities, a reality that contradicts the ideals of equality at the core of America's founding principles. When he asked people the greatest issue facing children in their communities, most said, "Our kids are growing up in bubbles, and they don't have an opportunity to get out, to learn, and to grow." More than any other, this response came up again and again. Along with valuable research, David also returned from his trip across America with new friends; a month into his senior year, clad in boots and cowboy hats, two rancher pals got off the train to spend a weekend with him in New Haven.
In the spring of 2019, David was substitute teaching and coaching baseball at the high school he'd gone to. During a slow moment, his students asked him about his road trip. As he spoke, around the room the students’ eyes widened. Then one asked, “How can we do this too?” Asked why they were interested in such a trip, all expressed the same curiosity: "I want to see what life on the outside is like."
For months, David and Paul Solman (of the PBS NewsHour), along with Bob Glauber (Professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government), Arlie Hochschild (Cal Berkeley Sociologist), Akhil Amar (Yale Law professor) and Dr. Glenn Young (Baptist Pastor in Kilgore, Texas), had been brainstorming an organization that could replicate the experiences they’d had making friends with people from across America’s great divide. They believed it would strike at the polarization and inequality dividing the country and fracturing the pillars of American democracy. David told the group about this common complaint among teenagers in small towns in Texas and South Dakota, and those in Boston suburbs. They realized, as a byproduct of the many social, political, and economic factors burdening our country, high schoolers across America, rich and poor, urban and rural, conservative and liberal, had been growing up in isolation and they were beginning to feel it. Naturally, many students across America didn't go out on their own because no organization existed to facilitate such an experience. Few students were willing to dive into territory that was, for them, uncharted, even if it was in their own country. So David and his group set out to build an organization that could help people, young and old, learn and develop empathy for Americans who live, and worship, and vote differently from themselves. Maybe, they thought, this effort, this cross-cultural exchange, would strike back against some of the forces dividing the country.
And so the American Exchange Project was born.
This is a long-term splint to a deep fracture. Healing will take time. But America has to start somewhere, and we have to start now.
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